Arnold Kling  

Is There Hope for My Most Wrong Belief?

PRINT
Geoffrey Miller, Masonomist... Unemployment: Do Europhiles Ha...

David Frum writes,


[Peter] Heather takes a less benign view of Rome. Here, he says, is a society of savage aggressiveness, that grew not through productivity improvement but by waging war on its neighbors to enslave their populations.

Pointer from Razib, although an email from Bruce Charlton alerted me to the passage above.

What I call "my most wrong belief" is that early markets where primarily mechanisms for exchanging plunder rather than systems for organizing voluntary production.


Comments and Sharing


CATEGORIES: Economic History



COMMENTS (8 to date)
Alex J. writes:

Rome's neighbors weren't any better, they were just less capable. The borders were bloody, and the Republic grew in part by letting people join in and expanding the group of people not at war or near-war. c.f. the Latin Right. In contrast, the Greeks always jealously guarded citizenship.

If early markets were plunder exchanges, how did the trading Carthaginians raised vast mercenary armies with their own gold coins? Wouldn't they have to have the army first?

Admiral writes:

I just don't get where you're coming from.

1. We could cede that city-states or governments come from the scale issues involved with security, which is only a tangentially related point... but...

2. Most anthropologists, linguists, and historians, regardless of Anatolian or Kurgan sympathies, now believe that peaceful diffusion of culture occurred rather than violent incursions. This isn't a piece of evidence, really, but if historical fact it would seem to suggest the power of markets first.

Whatever the case, why do they have to be mutually exclusive? Markets for plunder probably existed at the same time. But primarily...? Not sure where the demand, given the income, would be for that.

paul writes:

I'm paraphrasing from some excellent lectures on Rome put out by The Teaching Company.

Rome didn't "fall" as much as it morphed. A 1000 years is a long time (500bc-500ad). as Cliche as it sounds I think the fall was in large part a result of lack of succession mechanics of the emperor which made civil wars more likely which incented the govt to increase revenue to pay the troops etc. and weakened the state... blah blah blah.

but who knows, history is very random...

English Professor writes:

There was much plunder during the late Roman Republic and the Empire. The goal of young aristocrats was to become an aide to a provincial governor and strip as much booty as one could from the province. But there was also a functioning market economy that produced high quality goods in large quantities that were distributed over large areas of the empire at relatively low costs. For instance, the quality of the mass-produced pottery was really quite astonishing. There is a recent book that gives some interesting information on the decline in standards of living that followed the fall of the Roman Empire in the west. See Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (2005), especially pp. 87-137.

fundamentalist writes:

I have to agree with Arnold. The main reason the Roman Empire declined was that it had reached the limits of expansion. The empire thrived while it could conquer and plunder, but when it was stopped by the Persians and the Northern tribes, it ran out of money.

The Roman Empire was primarily agricultural and each farm raised barely enough food to feed the owner and workers. A very small surplus went to the market. Agricultural productivity didn't increase at all. The wealth of Rome consisted almost exclusively of plunder, which the state consumed rapidly in continuous warfare.

The pattern is clear from ancient Babylon through the Ottoman Empire and into the Spanish Empire. The state thrived through plunder. The first city to exist mostly on commerce was Venice, and the first nation was the Dutch Republic.

John Thacker writes:
Rome's neighbors weren't any better, they were just less capable. The borders were bloody, and the Republic grew in part by letting people join in and expanding the group of people not at war or near-war. c.f. the Latin Right.

Alex J.,

but Rome stopped expanding citizenship at some point. So would you agree with a modified version of Arnold's thesis, that Rome at some point changed from expanding on the basis of expanding citizenship to an empire of plunder?

Alex J. writes:

I agree that the prospect of join the Republic ceased to be an attractive carrot held out to new people added to the Roman state. Arnold's suggestion is that markets started as a way to fence plundered goods is inconsistent with the commercium latin right of c. 338 BC, unless he wants to argue that Roman markets started still earlier.

Tracy W writes:

...that grew not through productivity improvement but by waging war on its neighbors to enslave their populations...

Doesn't growing by successfully waging war on your neighbours require productivity improvements? After all, the more you successfully wage war on your neighbours, the more your new neighbours are going to arm up against you, the higher your transport costs are to reach your front-lines, and thus the higher your communication costs, the more resources you need to dedicate to keeping your ex-neighbours enslaved, etc.
Growing by waging war on your neighbours for several generations strikes me as demanding some pretty impressive productivity improvements in your armed forces at least.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top